News of the Wuhan coronavirus’ continued spread has people all over the world worried about how to protect themselves. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed only 11 coronavirus cases in the United States, people seem to be on edge about how fast the virus is spreading and how they can stay healthy.
One way people are trying to battle the virus is by picking up a face mask to wear while out in public. But the global demand for masks is skyrocketing, in no small part because most of the world’s supply is made in Taiwan and China, where the government has forced factories to stop all exports so they can instead meet the demand within China, The New York Times reported. The Chinese government has ordered everyone to wear a mask when they go outside, so to supply enough masks to people there, China has taken the unusual step of importing them from makers in the U.S. and Europe.
Combine the mask shortage in China with the panic over getting the virus, plus people buying them here to send to friends and family in Asia or hoarding them, and the result is that even pharmacies in the U.S. are running out.
Major pharmacy chains in the U.S., such as CVS and Walgreens, are experiencing high demand for face masks and hand sanitizer. @PatrickKwan posted a photo from a New York City pharmacy showing anecdotal evidence of the shortage.
— Patrick Kwan (@PatrickKwan) January 27, 2020
Meanwhile, health officials cautioned the public against hoarding them, saying that face masks don’t offer protection for the average American.
Does wearing a face mask prevent coronavirus?
“The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus,” the CDC says. Face masks are not mentioned on the CDC’s coronavirus prevention and treatment page. The agency recommends hand washing, and if hot soap and water are not available, using hand sanitizer with is at least 60% alcohol content. Other tips include not touching your face with unwashed hands and staying home when you’re sick.
“Right now, there’s no evidence that [wearing face masks] is going to help prevent that infection,” said Dr. Charles Chiu, a professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told CNN.
Face masks only need to be worn by those in direct contact with coronavirus patients or those potentially exposed. This typically includes health care workers or family members of a confirmed patient with the virus.
Officials worry the mask shortage will affect hospitals and doctors’ offices, where health care workers — who are at the highest risk for infection — truly need them. If health care workers have limited access to face mask protection, it can pose a problem for the greater population.
“There’s no rational reason why everyone needs to run out and get masks,” said Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, co-director of the University of Washington MetaCenter for Pandemic Preparedness and Global Health Security.
Experts question the typical face mask’s effectiveness for a couple of reasons. First, people tend not to use surgical masks properly. They pull them aside to talk or sneeze, and they tend to wear them too long, leaving them soggy from breath vapor and ultimately reducing the mask’s effectiveness.
Also, surgical masks do not seal properly around a person’s nose and mouth, leaving them vulnerable to airborne particles.
In fact, these masks can be most helpful if you wear one while you’re sick to prevent your own germs from spreading — not the other way around.
“Wearing a surgical mask helps you prevent sharing your germs if you’re sick,” Saskia Popescu, a hospital epidemiologist and infection prevention expert, told CNN. “Surgical masks do not seal around the face, so while they offer some protection, it’s the N95 mask that offers the most protection.”
The N95 respirator mask is only recommended for doctors or nurses working directly with coronavirus patients, according to the CDC. And they’re trained on how to wear them properly to maximize effectiveness.
In the meantime, the CDC’s advice to wash hands often is also a good tip for preventing colds and flu. So let’s get scrubbing!